It will surprise few to hear poets have a reputation for hoarding their discontents. Call it an occupational hazard for the “unacknowledged legislators,” those who devote their lives to making an undersung art that often leaves its practitioners feeling skinless and misunderstood. For example, one of the measures of success as a poet is having one’s work selected for inclusion in an anthology. Yet for many poets, as soon as they learn the happy news that their poems will be included, certain irritable and irrepressible questions creep to mind: “Why have the editors chosen these particular poems? Why not this other poem I wrote recently and like better?? Is this really my best work???” Imagine if we got to choose our own poems to represent us in an anthology. In Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most, we did just that: our idea was to have a diverse range of poets choose a single poem that best represents a personal artistic touchstone thus far in their writing life, or maybe more broadly as a human being. This anthology serves as an intimate record of what these many poets believe and have believed is most essential to engaging with their work.
—Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips, editors
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl
by Diane Seuss
She comes out of the dark seeking pie, but instead ﬁnds two dead peacocks.
One is strung up by its feet. The other lies on its side in a pool
of its own blood. The girl is burdened with curly bangs. A too-small cap.
She wanted pie, not these beautiful birds. Not a small, dusky apple
from a basket of dusky apples. Reach in. Choose a dusky apple.
She sleepwalked to this window, her body led by its hunger for pie.
Instead, this dead beauty, gratuitous. Scalloped green feathers. Gold breast.
Iridescent-eyed plumage, supine on the table. Two gaudy crowns.
She rests her elbows on the stone windowsill. Why not pluck a feather?
Why lean against the gold house of the rich and stare at the bird’s dead eye?
The girl must pull the heavy bird into the night and run off with it.
Build a ﬁre on the riverbank. Tear away the beautiful feathers.
Suck scorched, tough, dark meat off of hollow bones. Look at her, ready to reach.
She’d hoped for pie. Meringue beaded gold. Art, useless as tits on a boar.
I have been writing poems since I was fourteen years old. I typed them on a manual typewriter. This was in the early 1970s, and the typewriter was old even then, probably from the 1930s. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know where it went. I learned something from every poem I ever wrote, even if it was ill conceived, cloying, or stupid. When I was eighteen, I learned by writing a poem called “MONSTER WOMAN.” The title and many of the words were typed in all caps. “She BIG AND MEAN,” it began. “ShCRASHIN through the RAZZberries. She EAT THE BRAINS of fawns, young quail, ROCK STARS, and RATS…” Sort of silly, but from that poem I learned that I could bend language and typography to my own transgressive purposes, that I could invent a self on the page, though in “MONSTER WOMAN” I described that self in the third person. She was one dimensionally powerful, stalking the landscape. Cartoonish. Green. In writing her, I laid claim to something in myself I hadn’t yet enacted in the world. The poem ended this way: “No use RUNNIN. No use bein SCARED, MISTER. Just PUT ON that FOOTBALL HELMET and KISS the good life GOODBYE.” I’d never read a poem like that. I don’t know why I thought I could write one.
The painting would not have entered my imagination so deeply without the girl.
A few decades later, “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl” came to be. Overtly, it seems to have little to do with “MONSTER WOMAN,” but it may carry a similarly transgressive tenor, albeit managed very differently. The impetus for the poem was a dream. All I remembered of it, on waking, were the words “STILL LIFE” emblazoned in the dark behind my eyelids. I had always loved visual art—I was an art history minor in college—but I hadn’t been particularly drawn to still life painting. But here it was, announcing itself in my dream. I did what all contemporary mystics do with dream information. I googled it. The ﬁrst painting that came up was Rembrandt’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. I fell in love with the title. Such a fancy bird, but here, dead, ready to be consumed by the eye and the mouth, and then the tagging on of “a girl” at the end—oh, by the way—there’s a girl. The painting itself drew me in further. One peacock hangs upside down by its foot from what looks to be a hooked cord. Its wings are splayed, exhibiting the variegations of its feathers. The head hangs upside down, sharp beak in proﬁle. The other peacock rests in a pool of blood upon a counter or table. Behind and between the bodies of the birds is a basket ﬁlled with apples. These are the primary elements of still life in the painting: apples, birds, and blood. The painting would not have entered my imagination so deeply without the girl, leaning on her elbows in the windowsill from out of the dark and gazing at the scene, matching us gaze for gaze. Don’t we all love looking at dead things?
I had been writing American Sentences, Allen Ginsberg’s invention. Ginsberg believed the anglicized three-line haiku (haiku are traditionally written in a single vertical line of seventeen syllables in Japanese) didn’t work in English. He thought the more “American” version of the haiku, an offshoot, would be a single seventeen-syllable sentence trekking across the page. It occurred to me that I might somehow respond to the painting in a series of American Sentences. Readers might not pick up on the syllable count, but it would provide me with a compressive practice. Keep me from wandering off the edge of the page. And what if I limited myself to fourteen lines, a kind of sonnet? The syllable-counting became an alternative to meter and rhyme. It offered up another sonic pattern—more syntax than music.
The ﬁrst line became my guide into the rest of the poem: “She comes out of the dark seeking pie, but instead ﬁnds two dead peacocks.” Situation, conﬂict, subject. In writing toward seventeen syllables, I found myself deﬁning the girl in primal observations. She is hungry. She seeks not just any food, but pie. Instead of pie, she gets dead peacocks. She comes out of the dark. She is not of the house. She is outside it, looking in. A peasant. An Other. Then the poem’s true subject came sliding in. “She sleepwalked to this window, her body led by its hunger for pie. / Instead, this dead beauty, gratuitous.” There is hunger and there is beauty. There is pie and there is peacock. A tension between art that feeds and art that offers us gratuitous beauty. Between “the gold house of the rich” and the people’s hunger. And, more personally, between outsider and insider, rural girl and poetry world.
The girl is less monstrous than MONSTER WOMAN, but just as much a trespasser.
Poems are smarter than I am. Like dreams, they come out of the dark and lead me to uncanny arrivals. The syllable counting, and the fourteen lines and the volta, or turn of thought, that we see in traditional sonnets, distracted my analytical brain enough for the deeper, more mysterious content to ooze up from the cytoplasmic goo. This is where the poem, and the book it would become part of, opened up for me. I was able to see the intersection between the rural, working-class Midwest, where I was raised by a single mother, and still life subject matter—bowls, fruit, kitchen implements. The undervalued realm of women’s work. I recognized that pie-seeking girl with her complicated yearning. Then with the volta, the plot of the poem shifts: “The girl must pull the heavy bird into the night and run off with it. / Build a ﬁre on the riverbank. Tear away the beautiful feathers. / Suck scorched, tough, dark meat off of hollow bones. Look at her, ready to reach.” I notice, now, the verbs: pull, run, build, tear, suck, reach. Any-thing but still. She must reach in from the dark, break the illusion of the picture plane, build her own ﬁre, and scorch her own bird. It’s not what she wants, but it’s what she has. Whatever beauty is, she must subsist on its marrow. I knew girls like her. I was and am a girl like her, as is my mother. Not unlike Eve, reaching across the threshold for the forbidden fruit.
The poem’s last sentence, “Art, useless as tits on a boar,” came to me with the surprise of a slap. “Useless as tits on a boar” was an idiom in my mom’s family, originating in her father’s barbershop in a village with a dirt main street. “You know Henry,” someone might say. “He’s useless as tits on a boar.” There it was—my mother’s voice and point of view. Her irony, her capacity for calling out the bullshit. A MON-STER WOMAN, of a kind. I loved the leap of calling art useless, even in the midst of an artful poem about art. The book that grew up around this ﬁrst poem explores high art and low culture, the matriarchy of still life, the complexity of stillness. That life, despite its losses, is still life. The girl is less monstrous than MONSTER WOMAN, but just as much a trespasser. On Rembrandt, and Ginsberg, and the sonnet itself. Framed by the window, the painting’s frame, and the sonnet’s inimitable architecture, she looks. She hungers. She plunders and feeds herself.
Diane Seuss is the author of six books of poetry. Her most recent collection is frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press 2021), winner of the PEN/Voelcker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press 2018), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press), received the Juniper Prize. Her sixth collection, Modern Poetry, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2024. Seuss was a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. She received the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. Seuss was raised by a single mother in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.
From Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems That Matter Most, edited by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips. Copyright © 2023. Available from Copper Canyon Press.